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Confused, chaotic scene described on sinking ferry

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- There was chaos and confusion on the bridge of a sinking ferry, with the captain first trying to stabilize the listing vessel before ordering its evacuation, a crewman said Thursday.

By the time the order came, however, he said it had become impossible to help many of the passengers - although the captain and a dozen crew members survived.

The confirmed death toll from Wednesday's sinking of the Sawol off southern South Korea was 25, the coast guard said. But the number was expected to rise with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, but strong currents would not allow them to enter, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in. The divers planned to pump oxygen into the ship to help any survivors, but first they had to get inside, he added.

The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure.

Kim said three vessels with cranes are being brought in to help with the rescue and to salvage the ferry, which sank not far from the southern city of Mokpo and now sits with just part of its keel visible.

Cellphone Video from South Korea Ferry Disaster

The captain of the Sawol, identified by broadcaster YTN and the Yonhap news agency as 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, was questioned by the coast guard and made a brief, videotaped appearance, although his face was hidden by a gray hoodie.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," Lee said. "I don't know what to say."

Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, said officials were investigating whether the captain got on one of the first rescue boats.

Kim Han-sik, president of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the ship's owner, also apologized separately, bowing deeply and saying through his tears, "I committed a sin punishable by death. ... I am at a loss for words. I am sorry. I am sorry."

The 146-meter (480-foot) Sewol had left Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea on Tuesday for the overnight journey to the southern resort island of Jeju. There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul,

It was three hours from its destination Wednesday morning when it began to list for an unknown reason.

Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years of shipping experience, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call, the ship was already listing more than 5 degrees, the critical angle at which a vessel can be brought back to even keel.

The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said.

Video obtained by The Associated Press that was shot by a survivor, truck driver Kim Dong-soo, shows the vessel listing severely with people in life jackets clinging to the side of the ship to keep from sliding. The initial announcement for passengers to stay in their quarters can be heard.

A third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said. A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but fell because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that he order an evacuation, Oh said.

About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn't sure that in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors also told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.

By then, it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers' rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle, he said. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats from being deployed.

"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.

It is not clear if the captain's actions violated any procedures, and he may have believed at the time that it was still possible to control the vessel, which would have made the order to evacuate unnecessary.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee told the AP that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but didn't because of the announcement to stay put.

"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," the 36-year-old Koo said from a hospital bed in Mokpo where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."

In Mokpo, relatives of the dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances began carrying the recovered bodies back to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their cars.

The family of one of the dead, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, described her as a woman who loved to boast about her students who came to her office to give her hugs.

"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head on her knee.

The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.


Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Ansan and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

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Cath's April 17 2014 at 8:36 PM

Where I come from, ferries are used for short excursions across a bay, not a 14 hour+ trip. These people needed an ocean liner!! And so yet another tragedy befalls human life. My prayers and condolences go out to those who have lost loved ones.

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1 reply
wits00087 Cath's April 17 2014 at 9:05 PM

Ferries go from Washington state up to Alaska all the time. Fare is cheap and people sleep outside on the docks under tents sometimes. 3-4 days on a ferry from Washington state to st. Petersburg Alaska.

Ferries aren't always for cheap little tours.

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midatac April 17 2014 at 8:05 PM

This is a tragedy beyond measure. I am so sorry for the families involved.

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suzanne April 18 2014 at 12:39 AM

God bless the families and relatives of all who lost their loved one's because of this Ferry Disaster. May our prayer's help them.
One thing my dad always told me about being on a boat , if ever the boat or a ship of any kind is under distress, go above, put a life jacket on and get on the deck ASAP. What has happened to safety rules @ SEA?

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suncruzma April 17 2014 at 8:00 PM

When you get on a ship one of the first things they do is the life jacket and what to do if anything goes wrong and show you to your life boat captain and crew last. Although I don't want to see anyone die in accidents like this. They know better than anyone how to survive and again saved themself. I understand but to get on the first life boat out of their this Captain needs to be punished as well as the crew who knows the ship inside and out and helped only themself.

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1 reply
KATHY&BILL suncruzma April 17 2014 at 8:16 PM

It was not a life boat.I don't see any of those on a Ferry. He got on a resue boat, which was after the ship was sinking. Really was he just suposed to drown for no reason. I'm sure you would ofpassed up being saved. You don't know what happened, or if anyone should be punished. Peolple like you need shut up.

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3 replies
foxylynx April 17 2014 at 7:59 PM

How horrific and devestatingly sad - my heart goes out to all the loved ones.

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Walter Seltzer April 17 2014 at 7:56 PM

Of course chaos and confusion reined; the damned ship was sinking. Captains and crews need better training and above all need to have drills before setting sail and ways to issue clear instructions to passengers in cases of emergency. I am not putting blame on anybody, but nobody seems to pay attention to pre departure safety instructions on ships and aircraft.

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1 reply
ggilbpsy Walter Seltzer April 17 2014 at 8:29 PM

US sailors are well trained, both licensed officers and crew. That is one
reason why there are so few US flagged ships. Pay less, hire cheap
crews, skirt Coast Guard standards. When was the last US merchant
ship to go down?

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limelicker April 18 2014 at 3:38 AM

There's people alive in there, behind the water proof doors. Shut Before Evacuation order givin.
they will find some more in there if they send divers down and keep pumping in Oxygen in and listen for the people BUT, DON't wait 2 days while they breathe up all the air they got left . they Said they were alive for days in the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.... I may be crazy but have not seen or heard any other plans out there....Pray for them??? Hell YA!!! pray for them and for somebody to go get them

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1 reply
Glenn limelicker April 18 2014 at 5:47 AM

Men were not alive for days aboard the USS Arizona. On the Arizona, the doors were open as the men prepared for inspection. When one million pounds of ammunition blew up, the blast and horrific heat went through the vessel killing and tearing to pieces everything in its path. You are probably thinking about the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor. She sunk flat down on purpose due to the quick thinking of the crew. Pearl Harbor, where the battleships were at that time, were sitting in around 40 feet of water. Not far to sink. There were a few men in the ship that were trapped in an area they could not be rescued from. From December 7th through around Christmas. At night, you could hear the men pounding on the hull with heavy objects. It was a sad sound, indeed for the men working in the harbor. They were trapped in an area large enough to keep them with oxygen for a long time. The parent were not told of how they died due to the horrible conditions in which they passed away. It wasn't until some time later that the family's found out. The men counted the days by marking the hull. There was no more sound from inside the West Virginia at anytime after Christmas. They found the men in the water-tight compartment after the ship was successfully raised and repaired to fight again.

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2 replies
phrankly Glenn April 18 2014 at 7:39 AM

in WW ll we had much more concern about OUR navy. this is not ours.

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karasyl Glenn April 18 2014 at 8:15 AM

Yes, I lived in Hawaii from 1973 to 1983 and heard this story about the last sounds from that ship until Christmas Eve. That was horrible. I don't know why they couldn't have been rescued. So frustrating. Yes, there could be people still alive in the South Korean ferry.

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dandcameron April 17 2014 at 10:37 PM

had to have hit something of substance or something large had to be left open
for the vessel have gone down so fast..It would take a large opening,,,like a unmarked rock.
another vessel or leaving a bow door open...which happened on a ferry between UK and Ireland..

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1 reply
Dave Thomas dandcameron April 18 2014 at 12:30 AM

Hi dandcameron, I have been thinking of the same scenario however what beautiful said also makes sense.
After a proper investigation we might find out. Many countries are still trying to find flight 370.

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Lisa April 18 2014 at 12:12 AM

How so very sad and tragic. It doesn't seem so diiferent then 9/11, when people first heard something happen and they were all told it is okay. There are many other instances that are not as infamous, when they initially tell you it is okay stay where you are. I am going to be the person that safely gets myself and family out!

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michellemariea April 17 2014 at 7:44 PM

My God! Not only can they not get the facts right on a missing plane, but now a Ferry! What a sad commentary on life...

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1 reply
daydayzee michellemariea April 17 2014 at 8:12 PM

sh-t happens

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